Ai-Jen Poo | Domestic Workers & Finding Balance Through the Lens of Love

Ai-jen Poo, Director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA), has been organizing immigrant women workers since 1996. In 2000 she co-founded Domestic Workers United, the New York based organization that spearheaded the successful passage of the state’s historic Domestic Workers Bill of Rights in 2010. In 2007, DWU helped organize the first national domestic workers convening, out of which the NDWA was formed. Ai-jen serves on the Board of Directors of Momsrising, National Jobs with Justice, Working America, and the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy. Among Ai-jen’s numerous accolades are the Ms. Foundation Woman of Vision Award, the Independent Sector American Express NGen Leadership Award, Newsweek’s 150 Fearless Women list, and the Time 100 list.

Ai-Jen Poo grew up with an awareness of gender inequality. Even as a young woman in middle school and high school, she was involved with women’s organizations. But it wasn’t until she arrived in New York for college, and began volunteering at a shelter for Asian immigrant women, that the path she should follow became clear to her.

She told me, “That’s where all of the connections started happening for me. [I could see] that working class and poor immigrant women really struggled to break free of the cycles and patterns of violence [they experienced] because of economic inequality, lack of opportunity and lack of access to quality jobs. There was actually this interplay between the economy, economic justice, gender equality and in our collective ability to take care of each other. I think that those connections have just been continuing to evolve for me over time in different iterations.”

“So there wasn’t a moment when you were growing up that you knew THIS is what I’m going to do; this is the path I’m going to take?”

“No. It wasn’t in any way that intentional. My father was an activist, so I always grew up around a really high sensitivity to injustice in the world, and I was exposed to a lot of patriarchy inside of my own family. I was always aware of how some of the deepest forms of injustice can take place right in your own home.”

The organization she runs, National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA), which has 33 alliances all over the country, helps uplift the voices and presence of working class and poor immigrant women of color–the same segment of the population that Ai-Jen began working with when she arrived in New York. During our interview, we spoke about the women of NDWA and the great strides her organization is making for an invisibilized group. We especially spoke about the strides these women make on a regular basis for themselves, for others, and the wealth of insight each of them hold, particularly for folks in the social justice movement.

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XC: Earlier you said something about “our collective ability to take care of each other.” Can you say a little bit more about that?

AJP: Yeah, I think that economic inequality, injustice and violence fundamentally impede us from being able to take care of each other and from being able to take care of the people that we love, including ourselves. There’s a clear relationship there. I think working at that intersection of women’s leadership and voice and power and care increasingly became an intersection that became more and more meaningful to me as I started organizing with women in different sectors.

XC: I see. It seems as though through the work that you’re doing, you’re actually allowing space for these women to have a voice. Are you finding that more and more women who are domestic workers are individually finding their own voices as well?

AJP: Absolutely. Our work is really about building the power of the workforce and creating space in the public imagination for the experiences and the leadership of the women that we work with, mainly domestic workers. Around the country our affiliates are organizing women to tell their story, to analyze what’s wrong, and to develop and move forward toward a collective solution.

In New York, there are thousands of women who were involved in advocating for the passage of the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights. I remember when the bill was being signed by the governor in 2010. One of our members, Angelica Hernandez, told me that she counted the number of times that she went to the capitol to tell her story and to demand the passage of the bill–really to demand respect and recognition. She told me that she had been 27 times. That meant she was taking days off, without pay, making the journey, finding an interpreter and pleading.

Advocacy groups would go from senator to assembly member and push this historic legislation forward with people like Angelica–all of whom ended up making history when the bill was passed and opening the door for all of these other groups to take on similar measures. And they inspired a generation of domestic workers around the country to say, “Not only can I change the conditions of my own life, but I can change the course of history through organizing and through my leadership.”

XC: That’s incredibly empowering, especially for a segment of the population that seems largely not thought about.

AJP: Right. Visibility and recognition takes on a whole other dimension of meaning for our folks. Domestic work has historically been associated with women, and it’s work that has just not been accounted for at all. We call it “the work that makes all other work possible,” to capture its value for people who don’t consider it at all. But it’s really true. When we think about a place like New York, if all of the domestic workers decided not to go to work one day, there isn’t a single sector of the economy that wouldn’t be affected. And yet the work is just not seen and not valued.

It’s the work that’s been historically associated with women. It’s work that’s unpaid and sort of expected and seen as a natural extension of being a woman. It’s also historically been done by women of color and immigrant women as paid work, and the workers have been consistently dehumanized and devalued. So when we talk about bringing respect and dignity to this work, it’s about undoing generations of social norms and exclusion.

XC: As I listen to you, I think about the long, long history of slavery, of the kind of work women have done even previous to that in all cultures and the kind of change you’re advocating for–it’s pretty deep, historically speaking.

AJP: Yeah, and you know when the labor laws were passed in this country as part of the New Deal, there was a compromise that was made, because Southern Dixiecrats refused to pass labor laws that allowed African Americans to gain political power through organizing. They said that the only way they would sign off on the New Deal–or support the New Deal–is if farm workers and domestic workers, who at the time were largely African American, were explicitly excluded from labor laws. Those exclusions remain to this day. We often refer to that as Jim Crow and the labor law or the unfinished business of the Civil Rights Era–of which there is a lot of unfinished business.

But it’s definitely a factor that this sector is still excluded. It has very deep roots in the legacy of slavery in this country, and there’s really no way to talk about it without talking about that history.

XC: Can you speak a little to the importance of women in terms of the domestic work that they do?

AJP: Twenty years ago Gloria Steinem wrote this article called “Revaluing Economics,” and in that article she talks about there being two invisible resources upon which everything else in the economy is built, without which nothing else is possible. She talks about [one resource], the work that goes into caring for families across generations, that unpaid work that’s largely been associated with women, the caregiving work, and the other resource being the planet’s natural resources. Those two incredibly vital and core resources have been intentionally taken for granted, exploited, made invisible. [Steinem] says that having any balance and sustainable economy for the future require a revaluing of those two resources. Not only accounting for them, but having their value at the core of how we think about an economy for the future.

Women are more than half of the workforce and yet are still doing the vast majority of the caregiving work; women are more than half of the electorate and women live longer. What I would say is that as the economy changes, as we enter this age wave where the Boomer generation is aging, it just feels like from every angle of society you actually cannot create solutions to any problem that we face, any challenge that we face, in the economy or in society, without having women’s experiences, perspectives, voices and leadership at the center of them. Not only that, but I would say that having women’s perspectives at the center can help us see the problems, solutions and opportunities much, much more clearly.

In our campaign called Caring Across Generations that’s sort of what we’re modeling, a way in which bringing a gender lens on the world can unlock incredible and integrated solutions to some of our greatest challenges as we go forward. What we’re doing with that campaign is addressing this huge and growing need for care, while also creating jobs and economic opportunities in some of the fastest growing low-wage workforces. We’re trying to address a number of problems in one vision that really brings people together.

I think that putting a gender lens on the economy and society really helped us do that. So we think that’s just one example of how women not only play a tremendous role inside of families and inside of the workforce, but also, because of those roles, they’re holders of a lot of solutions for the future–sustainable solutions, or actually solutions that go beyond helping us sustain but which go toward helping us thrive as a society.

XC: It seems that the way women are treated is an exact metaphor for the way in which we’re treating the earth. And in order to find balance we actually need to start with ourselves. In terms of finding that value, I’ve read that you believe that love has a lot to do with it. How does that work? How do you explain to someone who just has no clue that organizing and domestic work come from love?

AJP: Well, you know, I think that just about anybody could connect with this notion that love is an incredibly powerful force for change. And I think that people experience it in their own lives in different ways.

It’s oftentimes love for our family that drives us to make enormous sacrifices in our own lives whether it’s work or time or money. There are all kinds of ways in which people choose to sacrifice for love, and it’s actually choosing love to do that. There are different ways that love drives people to make choices all the time. I think that what we’ve found is that there’s incredible potential power for social change [in love]. And I think that people caring about their children means that they will actually bring somebody else into their lives to help make sure that those children have care. And that’s an act of love.

Sometimes it can also be an act of love that allows for that relationship [between a domestic work and family member] to be one that sustains people’s lives. It can be a chosen relationship as well. So I think that [love is] one of those things that is most immediate and familiar to people that when they think about their own family, or their partners, [they can see] there’s an inherent way in which all of us are interconnected. Looking at it through the lens of love makes the connection much more immediate.

Many people are deeply concerned about their parents and their grandparents aging and feel a debt of gratitude for everything their parents and grandparents have sacrificed and given to them, but are at a total loss for how they’re going to take care of them as they age. There’s no support for that. So, it’s a fear that’s tied to love, and we think that if we can tap into that feeling of love we can also generate incredible solutions, which is where the Caring Across Generations vision comes in. It allows us an entry point to talk about issues that people might feel a little more disconnected to so we can talk about it through that lens. It creates a lot of possibility. It creates a lot of space, heart space, to look at issues differently. And it taps into a different dimension of power and energy that we think is underutilized as a resource to social change.

XC: Absolutely, people seem to be finding community and love and related energy as a way to make progress happen.

AJP: Domestic workers really do a good job of modeling for the social justice movement. One of the things that I find so consistently inspiring and powerful about the leadership of domestic workers in our alliance is that as mostly working class or poor women, women of color, and immigrants they live inside of that experience, that class experience. Then they go to work, and they oftentimes work for employers that are much more wealthy and almost on the other end of the wealth spectrum from where they are, so they understand that different class experience and that reality, because they live inside of that in terms of their employers. So they have this incredibly sharp understanding of inequality. AND yet, they also have this incredible depth of humanity, because they actually love and care for the families that they work for; they couldn’t do the work every day if they didn’t.

So they have cultivated a deep, deep capacity for compassion and humanity inside of a really sharp understanding of inequality. And I think that is the place from which we can build a really powerful movement for change. It’s really that sharpness and that clarity of all that’s wrong, of all that’s out of balance in the universe that really needs fundamental transformation. And we need to be able to do it from a place of deep compassion, love and a place of connection to humanity, to the sense of universal humanity. I think that domestic workers, in a lot of ways, have that piece down, and there’s a lot that we as social justice activists can really learn from them in that way.

XC: In terms of the many layers of worlds that these women must live in, not just in terms of class, but also in terms of race, in terms of being immigrants, all of the many worlds that they must negotiate in order to just live from day to day that’s an enormous resource. And then all of that coupled with, of course, caring for those people that you work for–or perhaps, you don’t if they’re really quite horrible.

AJP: Well, oftentimes the employers will be the ones that are horrible, but the children or the seniors–the people who you have to actually work with day in and day out–there’s no way to hate them and do your job, you know.

XC: So how do you empower the women?

AJP: Well, you know they’re pretty empowered. I don’t think we’re empowering anyone; I think that they empower me. What they find through joining our movement is a sense of connection, a sense of being a part of something that’s a force for change, that’s larger than any one person or organization, and a place where they can actually exercise power and leadership together. They can really put forward a vision for a more caring and loving society that really does work for and value everyone. And I think that’s the gift of being a part of a movement, and that’s what the National Alliance is trying to build.

XC: One of the things that we focus on in the journal is how people’s inner practice connects to the work that they do in the world. And I’m just curious whether you have a spiritual practice like yoga, meditation, dance–what ever that might look like for you.

AJP: I think it’s really important for everyone to have a practice that helps them get back to their own sense of purpose in the world and [sense of connection] in their relationships. I have a yoga practice, and, I wouldn’t call it a meditation practice, although I have throughout my life tried to develop a meditation practice, [I have something] more like a centering practice.

I try to center before I do anything important that has implications for anybody else besides myself. I do think it’s a responsibility for all of us in this work to really know how connected we are–interconnected and interdependent–and what the implications are of our actions. I try to be responsible around that. Then, for my own sanity, my yoga practice just helps me create space in my mind and in my consciousness about the things that I really care about and think are important.

XC: Would you be a different person if you didn’t do it?

AJP: Definitely. I can feel the difference right away, when I haven’t practiced in a while. It’s grounding and helps me bring a different quality of presence to the work that I’m doing.

Articles & Video on Ai-Jen:

The Nannies’ Norma Rae

Ai-Jen Poo | The Rockstar of Community Organizing

Ai-Jen Poo & Sarita Gupta On Worker’s Rights

Learn more about Caring Across Generations

LEADING WITH LOVE: Celebrating 5 Years of NDWA — November 14th, Washington, D.C. — Save the date!

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